Every Field of Vision short documentary film opens with the same 4-second sequence: a close-up of the logo – so close-up in fact that the font is blurred and out of focus, the words rendered illegible.
All of a sudden it snaps back into a crisp, clear focus and the full whole logo becomes visible, in perfect proportion against the black background.
It gives an impression of a mistake being corrected; of us, the viewers, having moved back to gain perspective; to see the full picture.
When we were too close we couldn’t see the wood for the trees.
“NOTES FROM THE BORDER (Summer 2015)” announces the opening frame, in the same white-text-on-black-background, the word summer complemented by the sound of gentle waves lapping in the background… seagulls? There is a momentary feeling of calm that is soon eclipsed by a rising sea of voices, human voices, all chattering at once, increasing in volume the closer we get to them.
A solitary young boy is observing the commotion; seeing what we cannot. His elbows rest on the sill of a stationary train carriage, with the ease of body reserved for those who have no expectation of ability to control their lives or their timetable.
His youthful eyes already perform the familiar squint of one grown too used to peering for answers, unsure if there are any.
The camera pans across railroad tracks, filled with migrants; mature women clutching cellphones as if they are merely one text or phone call away from liberation. Adult men crowded against a fence. Terse commotion all around.
The camera catches someone in the shade of the carriage, idly rubbing their hands. Text on the screen tells us that we are in Macedonia, on the Greek border.
A man in a uniform; mustering humans as cow herders do their bovine charges. “Go. GO. GO.” Their voice carries the authority of those who are outnumbered 50 to 1 yet wish to somehow retain the upper-hand.
Humanity divided by a fence. Those within terse and pensive. Those without insistent and increasingly impatient.
It is August 20th, the now-familiar text tells us. 2,500 refugees are arriving daily; Macedonia has declared a state of emergency and deployed the miitary.
This announcement is contrasted by whistles, applause and cheering, though there is yet no sense of why. Everyone is looking towards something, then some are running – the screen goes black. In white italics – “You are not allowed to take pictures or film… Delete everything you got. Everything!”
It seems the military have arrived.
The filmmaker speaks through the periodic frames of text. It is all we ever see or hear from her. She now tells us she has met her source “N”, on an island in Greece. He escaped from Syria.
The use of a single letter for his name implies danger. Danger he should have escaped from, once the physical devastation of Syria was far behind him. But it seems that departure was just the beginning of his journey.
The screen is filled with gently lapping waves and there is motion. We are on a boat, moving towards an unknown destination. N is speaking, in his native language. Italicised text on the screen translates for us foreigners; the gentle lilt of his accent, overlaid.
It takes 10 hours to cross his home city, due to military checkpoints. He tells us it is “divided by different armies, like Berlin.”
The view from a beach now – mountains in the far distance, kissing sunset. Or perhaps it is sunrise.
The lights of civilisation lay at their feet.
Two silhouettes stroll, almost aimlessly. Subconsciously veering closer, then apart.
Again closer, then apart.
Neither is quite paying enough attention to the other. Hands gesture. One has a tool belt. He raises a cellphone camera. A boat is coming. An inflatable raft, now nearly upon the beach. Men with lifejackets. One bag each.
The white text tells us we are 24 kilometres from Turkey. Yet these men had to cross a sea to get here.
The two police officers on the beach greet them with silence. They depart in 4-wheel drives; the new arrivals follow on foot.
“N” tells us… “When we got to the boat we realised our driver had never operated a boat, he was struggling around the high waves.”
The privilege of the viewer is keenly felt; having never had to risk such a journey. Imagine a taxi driver that cannot drive a car. A train driver that cannot drive a train. A skipper that has never piloted a vessel. With lives in his hands. Is there anything more terrifying, to both passenger and unwitting commandeer?
We are at a refugee centre now. It is in fact just an over-full and semi-dilapidated hotel.
Women hold their children. A child has picked a flower and is inhaling its scent. A man wants to know of another whether he has been assigned a bed. The most basic apparatus of human existence has become a commodity; a source of envy.
Men bathe each other in public with a garden hose. Women will have no such luxury.
An outer room of the hotel is crowded with mattresses on the floor, little more than sleeping mats. Outside, we have a bird’s eye view of neatly formed lines of refugees, awaiting food. Children first. Women next. Beef, mushrooms, cabbage, peas, in plastic containers. Order turns to pushing and shoving when there is no food left for the men.
We see close profile shots of young men. Pensive. Waiting. Not knowing what the next day will bring, hardened by their inability to properly process having survived the days before it.
Older men, more resigned. Women on the upper floors, walking, resting, in shadow.
The new day dawns. It is August 21st.
A boat is arriving on the beach. Another group of refugees walking to shelter, past people of leisure in their tennis whites, on a manicured court. The refugees peer in. The tennis players peer out. Aliens on different trajectories, crossing paths. Neither speaks.
The refugees pass luxury yachts and cruise ships at a marina. Settle in groups on concrete in the shade.
They are waiting to transit to mainland Greece.
“We are heading to Macedonia and then to Serbia. Pray that we may get there safe.”
But we have already been to Macedonia. That was where we were denied pictures; denied visual testimony.
Now the filmmaker takes us to the Hungarian border with Serbia.
We have a dashboard view of the road passing beneath us, refugees again walking. Dotting the side of the road, also in motion but at a fraction of the pace.
We are transported not just in distance but in time: it is August 27th. The sterile white text informs us 71 refugees suffocated in a truck. At least 2,500 are estimated to have drowned in the ocean in a year.
“N” has arrived at his destination but we have not seen him, nor do we have a clue as to his condition or his fate. Likely neither does he.
The film closes with gentle background noise. A gentle breeze. The occasional sound of a passing car.
A few humble credits. And a thank you.
To watch ‘Notes From The Border’ please click here.
Field of Vision
A lot has been written about the launch of The Intercept’s short-documentary project Field of Vision, which, like Laura Poitras’ CitizenFour the year before it, was launched at the New York Film Festival.
Yet there seems to be little in-depth analysis of the content itself available on the web. Few full-length professional reviews, and even less from the perspective of an average viewer.
Despite having no professional experience at or affinity for writing film reviews, the weight, gravity and polish of the productions have directly inspired the writing of this review series, to further examine the work of the documentarians and the topical significance of their undertakings.
For there is no doubt they contain previously unrecognised everyday acts of human valour; of personal courage; acts of truth-telling.